John Clease with long legs, London city suit and bowler hat cuts a comic figure in his Monty Python sketch of a civil servant at the Ministry of Silly Walks. Less comical and infinitely more critical is the issue of safety in the wake of NuStar’s latest oil spills on Statia – within the waters of this island of natural beauty and significant heritage. Once again, the failures of local government and the Dutch Ministry of Infrastructure and Environment are put into the spotlight.
What does it take to convince a wealthy oil corporation and the political system that accommodates it so readily to realize that public health, safety and environment come first?
A few months ago, I was told by a senior civil servant in the region that safety was a matter for compromise. The argument went that with so many big government rules and regulations, business could not operate without a certain amount of give and take.
My ignorance and short sightedness were apparently alarming.
However, more alarming are the right steps that have not been taken and the wrong steps that were followed to create this latest disaster of a spill.
The first rule of crisis communication in the event of an emergency of this kind is that “you tell it all and tell it fast.” NuStar has yet to inform the members of the Island Council and the local community that this incident ever happened. First signs of the spill were spotted by fishermen once the smelly oil clogged the bows of their boats and the furrows of their faces.
And yet on NuStar’s website, safety performance is almost trumpeted: ‘Curt Anastasio, President and CEO, fully supports health, safety and environmental excellence and has led the way providing “The safety of our employees, contract employees, customers, neighbors and the environment is a core business value and an important priority.”
So how do they lead the way? By making grandiose PR statements for their banks and acting deaf, blind and dumb when it comes to their tanks. However, this lack of substance for dangerous substances is not entirely the fault of NuStar.
Too little to late.
Step forward the Dutch Ministry of Infrastructure and Environment – with or without silly walks! The report by their Department of Shipping & Waterways into the spill that happened nine months ago was very damning. NuStar’s response was deemed “Too little and too late!” Such a spill required “containment and clean-up operations to start within 15 minutes.” Not wait four hours and 15 minutes after the spillage was reported.
In this instance, the Ministry said certain unspecified measures will be taken if the permit’s stipulations are violated again before February 1, 2014. Now forgive me if I am wrong, but they seem to have been violated yet again. And if the Ministry is responsible for keeping NuStar on a safety path, why does it use ministerial speak for: if you do it again, I shall do something, but I am not going to tell you what! What kind of regulating authority is that?
It is a toothless authority who is overloaded with too many carrots for an industry that provides only a few jobs proportionately and contributes not enough to the island’s coffers. And when it comes to sticks, its disregard for health, safety and environment is evident.
As we have seen, there can be no compromise when it comes to health, safety and environment. There can be no give and take! There can be no risk assessment in the absence of a total commitment to continuous improvement in safety.
Mandarins at the Ministry accused NuStar for acting too little and too late but the Ministry took as long as six months to produce its report. If the spill had occurred at the oil facilities at Pernis in The Netherlands, such a report would have been produced within six weeks. When islanders reported the latest incident, their emails remained unanswered. No confirmation received; no explanation given; no gratitude for information offered.
Such hypocrisy of scope and scale beggar’s belief.
Like NuStar’s website, the gap between the Ministry’s creed and its deed could never be wider. Who are we to believe? What are we meant to believe?
And I have other questions: why was it only recently that NuStar advertised for a new Health, Safety and Environment specialist on the island? Why has the company waited until only a few weeks ago to consult at great expense with Royal Haskoning about their fire precautions? Why do they report Lost Time Accidents and not major incidents? Why their knee-jerk reaction to blame contractors for their spills on the island of Statia and contractors for fire accidents on the mainland of the USA?
Contractor or no contractor, NuStar is responsible for the safety of everybody on its sites and even the hubris on its websites.
The company has been told by the Dutch Ministry and local government to spend many millions of dollars on better safety over the next fifteen years. When are they going to start spending it through improved equipment, safety practices, audits and programs? Where is their crisis communication plan? In San Antonio or on Golden Rock? Do they have one?
Why all the silence from STENAPA, the island’s environmental foundation that relies on NuStar funding? Where is the excellence to which their CEO refers in all of that? Why has the Island Governor who is responsible for communication still not communicated to the community? Why has he waited until today to report about the latest oil spill?
Over the last three years, successive (but not successful) commissioners have bent over backwards to massage the profit of NuStar to the detriment of the interest of Statians. NuStar’s proposed construction of a 30 meter tall oil terminal at the end of an airport runway and close to a school would have been unsafe by any technical or administrative definition. However, local politicians complied and lied. Islanders are still paying for this aborted project through enormous legal and administrative costs.
Over the next few weeks, the political thrills over oil spills will not abate. Carlyle Tearr is responsible for the environment and his silence has also been monumental. In the world of politics, silence is also communication and his leadership talents and skills should now be seriously questioned. He was hand-picked not elected. He sits in the middle of NuStar’s Pandora’s Box without authority of the Ballot Box. He is in office but out of power.
However, as for the Dutch Ministry of Silly Walks and Waterways, I expect extreme regulatory pokes not jokes. Will we see any? Not whilst their mincing civil servants are golfing their way to the nineteenth hole in San Antonio!